Tour Of Pendle

Clag, cramp and cowbells – a wild fell and fallen day out o’er the Dark side…

Saturday 15th 2014, Barley village, Lancashire.

The Tour of Pendle is legendary. The route isn’t easy to describe and sometimes harder to navigate – at just shy of 17 miles and 5000 feet of ascent, it basically covers overlapping butterfly wings, with the bit in the middle covered twice: the first wing is largely runable, while the second is shear torture. The terrain and gradient constantly change: grassy hillsides lead into rocky paths that are followed by boggy trods, access tracks, bracken cliffs, beck crossings and more of the same, in varying order. The route doesn’t allow any rhythm and gradually breaks you down: both physically and mentally. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Indeed, wise silver beards say it’s ‘like ‘Nam, only worse’. Others suggest it’s harder than the Three Peaks and much like doing Ben Nevis followed promptly by a tough 10k. The downs are equally complex as the ups. Many agree it’s one race to try at least once… and that might just be enough!

Clag covered hill tops greeted the runners on the first ascent from Barley village up Ogden Hill, towards Pendle Hill. The first mile was fairly easy, if not undulating with a slight ascent but on newly surfaced tarmac – quite a pleasant introduction, I thought. Things then changed – upwards. I managed a steady shuffle-walk-shuffle and felt pretty good once on the grass and rocky hillside: breathing was fine, although leg muscles were burning from the first climb. A brisk, cool breeze whipped over the top, ruffling race numbers and chinking plastic checkpoint tokens, clipped to most waist packs. CP1 was out there, somewhere.

Checkpoints (CPs) and navigation are golden – no marshals or tape to guide and comfort the weary runner. Each runner is given twelve tokens, numbered and corresponding to the individual’s race number. There are twelve CPs. The tokens are placed into designated CP buckets. Immediate assessment can determine that all participants are present and correct, and that they have broadly followed the correct route – some runners may slightly vary between CP due to local knowledge, or from getting lost!

A faint ringing of cowbells signaled the approach of spectators at Pendle Hill’s summit cairn. Runners shuffled past like zombies. I followed others through the mist. Boggy marsh soon swallowed lower legs and cascaded brown mud pellets across colourful vests and pale legs. The three-mile section CP1-2 is largely a net loss in elevation but there was little opportunity to raise the head; grass lumps and mud hollows took a few who gazed a bit too long I did briefly notice a clearing in the clag and the Darwen valley opened out to the south-west. Soon, a gravel access track skirted Churn Clough Reservoir and a line of runners filed skywards beyond CP3 on a dark brown path between copper bracken. The gradient was steep and those all around me adopted a steady fell-shuffle, some with annoying grunts and wheezes, perhaps to scare away the witches? The summit plateau was again in clag and the path diverted several times across a slippery, broken stone wall. Runners suddenly broke into three separate, forward directions. I remembered advice to keep right on the top. This was the favoured route, allegedly. Not that it made much difference….this was Geronimo – the only way was down. And down fast.

Grass tufts, bracken and rock quickly passed my feet. Yelps, cheers and applause could be heard in the mist below. Then there were warning shouts of ROCK or BELOW (usually followed by an expletive). I did witness a dinner plate size stone bouncing down the hillside. The challenge wasn’t so much to descend safely, but more maintaining a controllable speed, careful to securely place feet; some choose to go down on their backsides! Smiling is not normal. The ‘fun’ was all over quickly, maybe too quickly – legs bit wobbly splashing through the beck at the hill foot then a glance up to the crowd of spectators. A quick comforting reassurance with support crew, gulp of water and an energy gel, then I waddled away up a muddy path back into the mist.

A careless fall followed by a loud, ground-striking thud didn’t derail my enthusiasm; it did leave me with a very sore index finger, which made sorties into my waist pack and fastening shoe laces problematic. A long one-mile descent west to CP5 exposed the pending doom of the reverse climb back up Mearley Moor – this would be the first of three killer climbs, each getting steeper and tougher in succession. The race was more about the matter between the ears than the muscles down into shoes. Steady, small steps counting in blocks of twenty. Keep going, no stops. I did however turn to see a long snake of runners stretching back almost a mile to the previous CP. Another token was soon dispatched and again the route fell away into the gloom of the clag. Quads were stretched as runners tried to control the speed of descent on the steep, grassy slopes. A fast-flowing beck and rising bank provided a barrier to CP7.

Upwards again, the legs creaking and starting to ache; long gaps appeared between me and other runners ahead and behind. Everyone was enduring similar pain, maybe even the same nightmare thoughts. Beyond the cairn at CP8 the clag was very dense. I had nobody to follow and had to lift out my route map. I soon passed participants walking through ankle deep foul smelling bog. I then dropped in elevation and continued across the side of the hill in a north-easterly direction. Again, there was nobody around; only the eerie and distant sound of voices – maybe witches – high above in the mist? I fell for the second time, although this one was into soft ground and created an impressive squelch and mud-splash. But alas, there were no spectators. CP9 shortly came into view as the visibility improved lower down. Then the last climb; a right bugger!
Cramp bolted into the quads above my knees. Other runners higher up the steep slopes swore, motivated others and simply did whatever it took. This was not easy – the body screaming to stop and go back, but willpower driving on and upwards. False summits in the mist came and went. I can’t really remember who I passed, or those that passed me. One runner had taken ill, though – disorientated, likely through dehydration and depleted glycogen. Soon, faces appeared before the stone wall, including my support crew offering water and wisdom – must’ve been cold to remain static in the misty clag, waiting for us muddy zombies to appear. I was so thankful for the needed support.

Heading back over Pendle Hill the sun briefly appeared through the clag then promptly disappeared – much like my ability to navigate. I went temporarily wrong here and should’ve got the compass out; momentarily lost with a runner from Lostock. Huh, the irony! A loud shriek from a couple of women several hundred metres to my left brought us correct, and soon we were descending over boggy terrain, with the full wall of Geronimo facing us to the south. A steep, sticky path through bracken led us to CP11 and the applause of walkers. A brief return on an undulating path brought us out on the tarmac track and the final (and seemingly much longer) mile to the finish.

In summary: this is much like doing a marathon, maybe not the distance, same pacing or overall time. But the amount of effort is comparable, especially when coupled with a need to focus, place feet and avoid hazards. A gnarly runner at the finish said the conditions were worth 15 minutes; I’ll be back to reduce my 3.42 in 2015 and try for sub 3.30.

The winner completed in 2.21 and first woman 2.49.

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